Religious groups concentrate on relief efforts to aid Haitians

The Revs. Tracy Bruce and Stephen Davenport travel to Haiti every January to visit the music school in Port-au-Prince, the church in St. Etienne and the other development projects they support in the poorest nation in the Americas.

But with the school and the church now destroyed, and no word yet from many of the friends with whom the husband-and-wife Episcopal clergy members have worked over the decades, they expect this month's trip to be different.

"There's nothing that's coming out of Haiti at all in terms of communication right now from anybody on the ground," Bruce, rector of St. John's Episcopal Church in Glyndon, said Friday. "We're really looking to find our partners, so the work will continue."

In the wake of the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that has leveled Port-au-Prince, religious groups throughout Maryland - many of which have long sent money and volunteers to Haitian orphanages, schools, clinics and churches - are focusing their charitable attention on disaster relief in the Caribbean nation of 9 million. They are talking about the devastation at services, taking up special collections and organizing teams to join the huge international relief effort.

"The people of Haiti are suffering beyond imagination and are crying out for the most basic of needs: water, food, clothing and shelter," the Rev. Dr. Peter K. Nord wrote in an appeal last week to the 72 congregations of the Presbytery of Baltimore. "They desperately need our help - help that will be needed for weeks, months and years to come."

Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, spiritual leader of the area's half-million Catholics, has asked parishes to take up a second collection for Catholic Relief Services. The Baltimore-based agency, the relief and development arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was tapped by the Vatican last week to head up the church's efforts in Haiti, which is 80 percent Catholic.

Bishops Eugene Taylor Sutton and John L. Rabb of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland are seeking donations for Episcopal Relief and Development. The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore established an emergency relief fund with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. And congregations large and small are planning fundraisers.

One such congregation is New Hope Adventist Church in Fulton, which worked discussion of the disaster into its weekly worship service on Saturday. A 31-member team from the church had been scheduled to leave early last Wednesday for central Haiti, where the team members were to dig wells for an orphanage that educates more than 200 children.

When the quake struck on Tuesday afternoon, the trip was postponed, and the church turned its attention to raising money for the Eden Garden Orphanage. The orphanage in the central town of Montrouis, 50 miles north of Port-au-Prince, was not damaged, but its board is asking for $200,000 to keep operating as prices rise, to provide security for students and staff, and to begin supporting the neighboring community.

"What we realized is that we're not first responders," said the Rev. Rajkumar Dixit, the associate pastor who oversees missions for the church. "We don't have training for that. We'd probably be in the way and get in more trouble than we needed to, so we needed to wait for things to die down."

The church has wired an initial $5,000 to help the orphanage buy food and fuel. Having already shipped well-drilling equipment and a passenger van to Montrouis, members still are planning to make a trip, but the delegation is likely to be smaller.

Dr. Rodrigue Mortel is also planning to travel. A surgeon and a Catholic deacon, he heads the Haiti Outreach Project of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which funds schools and feeds 15,000 children daily in its sister Diocese of Gonaïves, 75 miles north of Port-au-Prince.

Mortel, who has had contact with his sister in the port town of Saint-Marc, said the students at schools supported by the archdiocese in Gonaïves and Saint-Marc are safe. But with the country's principal transportation and freight hub devastated, he said, rising prices and increasing isolation are likely to take a toll on almost everyone.

"The emotional impact on everyone in the island is already there," he said. "The physical impact will come in later. Since everything was centered on Port-au-Prince, everyone is going to feel the impact. Oh yeah. It's coming, and it's coming soon."

By tradition, Oblate Sisters of Providence foundress Mary Elizabeth Lange was born in Haiti; the Baltimore-based order of Catholic nuns works with the Immaculate Heart of Mary Sisters on an outreach project there. Superior General Mary Alexis Fisher said the order has made a donation to the project and is saying a nine-day novena for all who have lost their lives.

The local church contributions come in addition to the work of Catholic Relief Services and the other national and international faith-based organizations whose headquarters are concentrated in the Baltimore area, including World Relief, IMA World Health and Lutheran World Relief.

At St. John's Episcopal Church, Bruce and Davenport have been taking donations since news of the quake reached the United States. Bruce said they will direct some of the money to Episcopal Relief and Development and keep some to distribute themselves when they visit on Jan. 24.

They plan to visit what remains of the Holy Trinity Music School in Port-au-Prince, whose musicians they have brought to Maryland to perform, and the Church of St. Etienne in the town of the same name, where they have supported reforestation projects. Both were destroyed in the quake.

"Mostly, we're focusing on what will need to happen next," said Bruce, who said she has traveled to the country 110 times in the past 20 years. "We're really focusing on, when the relief effort is over, what our people are going to need in order to have hope and rebuild."

Davenport, who said he has taken more than 500 people to Haiti over the past 40 years, spoke of Haitian resilience.

"With Haitians, it's, 'This is what happens,' and then they gird up, and you take your faith, and you go forward. That's their way. I've never known a Haitian to get discouraged.

"I take business people and government people to Haiti, they all come home depressed. I take church people, they come back inspired."